May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Apple pie. The apple isn’t even native to American soil. The first trees were planted by Pilgrims, and while a ton of apple pie sustained our forebears through the early days of building this country, most apple pies, even way back then, were fairly tasteless creations—mushy fillings encased in what an eighteenth-century preacher, forced by parishioners to eat more than his fair share, described as pastry so hard “its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it.” Modern apple pies have often fared worse. For one thing, a really good apple pie demands a selection of really good apples—two or three varieties, at least—and Delicious apples just don’t count. It is no use making an apple pie without a supply of flavorful, old-style cooking apples, such as Gravensteins, Jonathans, and, if you can find them, Stayman Winesaps. If you can gather up six or seven of these and succeed in mixing together a delicate crust made of lard and butter, well, then, you’ll have a pretty good pie. It may even be great, but that’s a rare thing indeed.
Sweet-potato pie. There are a lot of things that are just right about a sweet-potato pie. First of all, it is made with something that is truly American; second of all, it’s hard to make a bad one. All you need is a couple of firm sweet potatoes. Boil them until just tender; mash them up with a little cream and some nutmeg and cinnamon; add a few eggs to hold everything together; then pour it into a crust. Any old crust will do (lard, butter, crumb, even store-bought; it just doesn’t matter because all the crust on a sweet-potato pie has to do is hold the filling together while it bakes, then act as a shovel when it’s done. Bake it for an hour and there you go: pure heaven, every time. Some people insist on serving it with ice cream—or maybe even a little bourbon-spiced whipped cream—but they just embroider a natural beauty. That something as lowly and simple as this native plant could be transformed into such a glorious feast is a perfect characterization of the American ideal.